Gil Williamson

Welcome to the August 2012 edition of Mythaxis.

This, the eleventh issue of the magazine, contains the greatest number of stories we have so far published in a single issue.

Part of this is due to me publishing five of Les Sklaroff's short pieces in one issue. They are light, short, and entertaining. Do not miss them..

Andrew Leon Hudson presents us with a headache, or, should I say 'Nightmare'?

Martin Clark also has two stories in this edition - quite different stories, both excellent.

It's a while since we were treated to one of Tom Davies' Pasha Rapley stories, so hold on to your hats for this one.

New contributor John Frochio gives us this 300 word story which encompasses a subtle plot.

I'm also publishing another in the Emigration series from Liam Baldwin.

An irritation has arisen with Internet Explorer, which was causing recent index pages to display wrongly. I believe I have fixed it. Please let me know if there's a problem on any platform.

Below, I write in memory of the punched card.

My theme today, following my nostalgia for slide rules in our previous issue, is the punched card. Like the slide rule, punched cards, as a data storage device, had a long innings. Disregarding pioneering uses, both were relatively commonplace from the 19th century until the 1980s, when they both basically disappeared. They disappeared for the same reason. Technology replaced them. I cannot, offhand, find a future sf story that features punched cards, but I know they seemed to be a permanent feature of computing. The cards in the image are the only cards I have left. I used to have stacks of them, as they were also useful for notes, shopping lists, propping up jiggly restaurant tables and so on.

Though they vanished very suddenly, punched cards had an Indian Summer as data storage devices for the computers of the 1950s and 1960s. As a programmer in the mid-1960s, when input data and software were almost universally stored on punched cards, it was hard to believe they would ever be superseded. Public utilities, banks, industrial firms, insurance companies, hospitals - any large concern who could afford a £100000+ computer - had "Data Preparation" departments, staffed by scores of staff who spent eight hours a day transferring handwritten input forms and computer programs onto punched cards. One of the most common sights in a business in those days were dozens of trays of punched cards, each tray containing up to 2000 cards.

Most people have only seen the commonest variety - the 80 column punch card as used by the majority of computer manufacturers - which was the same size as the big orange one in the image above, but the orange one is, in fact, a Powers Samas 65 column card which used round holes, not the more conventional rectangular ones.

The little pink one is a 21 column Powers card, intended to be 2 sets of 10 columns, counting from left to right and right to left, and a control column in the middle. Weird.

The two long thin ones are a 36-column Powers card and a 40 column ICT.

The pale square one is an IBM 96 column card (3 rows of 32) - used, I think, on the System 38 computer family.

The cut-off corners were to ensure that every card in a pack was facing the same way.

Many disasters arose from the accidental spilling of packs of cards, as their sequence, as well as their orientation, was usually critical. I once dropped a pack when entering a lift, and a few cards fell down the slot between the floor and the car. I not only had to put them back in order, I had to figure out which ones had disappeared and get them re-punched. You also had to learn how to put the card pack into any given card reader, as they all varied, like today's chip and pin machines. I still remember the ICL 900 card per minute reader, (face down, 9 edge leading). That machine read, as you will easily calculate, 15 cards per second, and it really had to move them quickly over the single column read head. The result was that for part of the time, each card was actually airborne, and woe betide you if it was even slightly bent, as aerodynamics would turn it sideways, and it would get stuck crosswise in the channel, and within one second, the following 15 cards would have hurtled into it before the automatic error tripped or you hit the stop switch. Then it was a question of trying to get the cards back in order, repunch any bent or torn ones and start again. It was nerve-racking enough at 900 cards a minute to keep the input hopper full and to empty the output.

The only card I ever learned to read by eye was the standard 80 column card. I could also punch cards on a hand punch. It became quite common for good programmers to hand-punch a program straight onto cards, and get a hard copy of them by running them through a print program.

Occasionally, card surgery was attempted. When punching cards, a by-product was the pile of little rectangular chips of cardboard that the punch cut out of the card. These were called "chad". If there was a single column error on an 80 column card, you could push pieces of chad back into the holes that were wrong - they fitted quite well - and re-punch that column - a great time-saver in the middle of the night, otherwise you would have to re-punch the whole 80 columns on a new card (which, of course, was what you OUGHT to have done). Unfortunately, the next time that pack of cards was riffled (as you had to do before the pack was put in a card reader) the chad was likely to fall out, and cause a error which might take hours to find. Wildcat card surgery became such a problem in some companies that hand punches were banned, but most programmers had one hidden in the back of a filing cabinet, just in case.

Happy days, eh?

Date and time of last update 18:25 Wed 22 Aug 2012
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